Headstones are the name tags the deceased wear to the afterworld. They tell who and what we were, how long we lived, and sometimes, how we died. Their epitaphs are literature’s shortest biographies and they serve as reminders that this was once a real living person worth remembering.

I’ve wandered a lot of cemeteries. My birthday is May 28 and regularly falls on Memorial Day which means as I was growing up, sprays of artificial flowers and 21-gun salutes often preceded cake and presents. In spite of, or probably, because of that, I like cemeteries. They’re quiet, peaceful, and have great stories to tell.

The headstone that, for me, started it all.

The headstones that speak the loudest to me are the children‘s. As a kid, it never dawned on me that some children never grew up, that they existed as perpetual Peter Pans in old photographs and the memories of the people who loved them in their all-too-brief lives. The first child’s headstone I ever saw was in the Presbyterian cemetery in Bancroft, IA. It’s an old cemetery by Midwest standards, with graves dating back to the 1800’s. This was one of them and what drew me to the headstone was the little lamb carved in the top. Why it sticks in my memory is because the child it honors was just over four months old.

I can’t imagine how the parents felt picking out that headstone. I was unable to have children long before I was of an age when I thought about having one so I will never be faced with that kind of loss. But so many others have, and I wonder how they ever deal with it. Here’s how one family did.

Jack and Marj Thompson are young parents, one still in college, the other a Masters graduate in 2010. They have two children, a four-year-old named Lily and a one-year-old named Cash. And in between the two, there was once another named Tehlula Lee. She died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in 2010 before she was even two months old.

One day Jack and Marj were walking through Greenwood Cemetery in Brookings, SD, where Tehlula Lee was laid to rest and they noticed something unusual. Many of the gravesites for children had only temporary markers, some of them decades old. They decided to do something about that.

In July of 2010, Jack and Marj formed the Tehlula Lee Foundation. Its goals are simple: to provide permanent headstones for the graves of children and to educate people about SIDS. To date, they’ve purchased 90 headstones for children’s graves at Greenwood Cemetery, and are now working on doing the same for cemeteries in other area communities like Volga, White and Toronto. In addition to the name of the child buried in each grave, each headstone contains an image of Tehlula’s footprint and the epitaph “Every soul leaves a footprint”.

The Thompsons never questioned why the temporary markers at Greenwood Cemetery were not replaced before with permanent stones. Brookings is a college town with a somewhat transient population set in a rural area with an economy that booms and busts. Nor did they judge the parents and families, some of whom have thanked them for the gesture. Jack and Marj just saw a need and made the effort to fill it, creating an incredible legacy for a special little girl and honoring generations of lost lambs before her.

It’s a Sunday morning as I post this and while the urge to get all preachy is there, I won’t. Instead, I’ll say this: There are people in this world doing amazing selfless things, and thank God for that.

To find out more about the Tehlula Lee Foundation or to make a donation, visit their website or the foundation’s Facebook page.

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Comments
  1. Es goodman says:

    Your story touched me this morning. Upon writing my mother’s memoirs, I stumbled upon the fact that I have a sister buried in Germany. With no way too get to Germany to “visit” a sister I never knew I had, I turned to people residing in Europe to help find her grave. These people were virtual strangers to me, people who helped me with research on my book. Long story short, they managed to find the grave and contacted a mason to clean up over 65 years of moss and erosion and sent me photos. Showing the photos to my 88 year old mom, and watching her kiss the image of the stone of the 5 week old daughter she lost in war torn Germany inspired me to finish her amazing story. You can read my short story about my research on wordpress. columbo1ES@wordpress.com

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